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Michael Cohen’s Trump recordings and the secret history of secret microphones

The original Nixon tape recorder used in the White House. (National Archives/AP)

In the summer of 1940, as the world plunged deeper into war, the Secret Service escorted an eccentric engineer named J. Ripley Kiel into the Oval Office.

Kiel had recently invented a small machine that could record sound via remote control. When a White House aide heard about the contraption, he thought it could allay one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cardinal fears — that he’d be misquoted during a press conference or meeting, further endangering the world.

Roosevelt signed off.

“The tall lamp on his desk was not suitable for hiding a microphone,” wrote William Doyle, in his book about Oval Office recordings, “so Kiel bought another one and hid the microphone in it. When switched on, the machine was noise activated, and began recording as soon as someone spoke or made a loud noise.”

With the country riveted by the recent disclosure of a secret recording of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump by his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, the Roosevelt taping apparatus is, according to historians and surveillance experts, instructive in several ways.

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For one thing, it is a timely reminder that the president whom Trump is most often compared to — Nixon — was not the first president to secretly tape White House conversations, a tactic Trump raised during his battles with James B. Comey, tweeting that the ex-FBI director “better hope” there are no tapes of their Oval Office conversations.

(None has emerged.)

But even in correcting one view of history, Roosevelt’s recordings also raise another false narrative: that surreptitious recording was an offensive and defensive weapon that emerged in the political world. Though recordings were used to root out rascals during Prohibition, the era of the Secret Recording Gotcha began in the world in which Trump was raised.

The business world. (And for catching unfaithful husbands by “private ears.”)

According to Georgetown professor Brian Hochman, who is working on a book about the history of surveillance, secret recordings were popularized in the noncriminal world by companies that used emerging technology — reel-to-reel tapes, transistors and so on — to investigate union activity, employee loyalty and even whether workers were adhering to the correct sales scripts.

“I would caution anyone who thinks this was only used in the political realm,” Hochman said in an interview. “It was a viciously effective labor management tool.”

And Hochman has a theory, backed up by nothing more than witnessing events from afar with a wider lens than the average CNN camera: that the urge to record displayed by people in Trump’s world — and by Trump, who is also said to be a prolific recorder — derives from “a corporate culture that still persists for them long after surreptitious wiretapping and recording were made illegal outside of law enforcement.”

The circumstantial evidence certainly makes sense: Trump’s father was a businessman in New York during a time when companies were trying to ferret out unions, and if he didn’t use secret recordings, he almost no doubt knew of others who did. Cohen was in the New York taxi business, a notoriously slippery place to operate.

New York itself is important in the history of secret recordings, for it is in that great metropolis that a man named Allen Funt first fascinated and then scared the general public with the power of surreptitious devices in the late 1940s. You might have heard of a television show he created: “Candid Camera.” It was preceded by a forgotten New York radio show: “Candid Microphone.”

In both programs, Funt secretly recorded average Joes doing average things, sometimes with roadblocks he set up for drama.

“Funt’s show appealed to broadcasters because it was inexpensive,” pop culture historian Fred Nadis wrote in the academic journal Film & History. “It appealed to audiences because it was amusing.”

But amusing only when the listener/viewer wasn’t the target.

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This was early in the Cold War, a time of loyalty oaths and dragnet investigations into any hint of communist activity. The success of “Candid Camera” coincided, in 1952, with the formation of the National Security Agency. So as Funt’s exploits swelled with popularity, so, too, did angst about who or what might be recorded by employers, the police or the government.

But around the same time, a contrarian emerged.

His name was Harold Lipset, “a bugging pioneer,” Hochman wrote, in detailing his career:

Born in Newark, New Jersey, and educated at the University of California, Berkeley, Lipset began his career as a freelance detective while serving in the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Division. He earned a bronze star for investigating crimes committed by American soldiers during World War II, and in 1947 he returned to the Bay Area to open a licensed private investigation firm. By the mid-1950s, Lipset had already made his name as America’s “super snooper,” routinely working more than 500 cases a year. He cemented his reputation by using electronic eavesdropping devices to help solve them.

In one famous case, Hochman wrote, “Lipset was tasked with recording a confidential exchange while sitting naked in a health club steam room.”

So where did he hide the bug?

A bar of soap.

It worked.

(The bug was clean, too.)

Lipset’s view on secret recordings was “idiosyncratic,” Hochman wrote. “Listening devices could exonerate as much as incriminate.” He quoted the super snooper as saying something Cohen might be thinking now: “A recording of your voice or of someone making accusations could free you.”

In late 1959, a Senate subcommittee investigating secret recording devices invited Lipset to testify. It was pure theater.

“I believe that the use of modern recordings is the greatest advance” toward ascertaining the truth, he said.

And to prove his point that secret recordings were a necessary evil, he pulled a tiny recorder out from his pocket and replayed his testimony.

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